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Dandelions and Bees: Do They Need Each Other?

Many people believe that dandelions and bees are a perfect match. The tiny flowers provide needed food for honey bees. In return, we say that the insects provide pollination for the plants. But, is this true? Are these two really the perfect couple that they seem to be? The real answer is more complicated than it may seem at first.

Do Bees Need Dandelion Flowers?

Honey bee forager collecting pollen on dandelion flower image.

Considered a weed by many homeowners, the dandelion is not without its fans.  A lawn in full bloom with thousands of tiny yellow flowers is a beautiful sight.  As long as it is not your lawn.

What about our honey bees? Do bees need the flowers of dandelion plants as an early food source?  I believe yes – they do.  This is one of many wildflowers that feed bees. But the full picture is actually more complex.

Dandelions are Not the First Food for Most Bees

When over-wintered colonies first start to forage in late Winter/early Spring, they are actively seeking fresh food sources.  Nectar is always on the menu plan but fresh pollen is in much demand.

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Dandelions have earned their place in the hearts of beekeepers due to their early bloom time.  In fact, in many areas of the country – you may find an occasional yellow flower at any month of the year.

They not only survive but actually flower in places protected from the coldest temperatures and snow. Urban beekeepers have been known to find a few plants in bloom beside buildings – even in cold regions.

Though the air temperature may be too cold for most bees to fly, they will enjoy the flowers on warmer days.

Purple dead nettle plants in bloom an early source of food for bees image.

Best Early Pollen Sources

Are these flowers indeed the all important food source that some believe? Dandelions may be early bloomers but they are not the first food source for most bee colonies.  Instead, some weeds that feed bees and native bee plants beat the dandelions to the punch. 

And, many early blooming trees provide better quality and more quantity of bee food. Due to the size of the plant, tree pollen can be a big boost to a colony in need.

Earlier Blooming Weeds, Shrubs and Trees

  • chickweed
  • crocus
  • fruit trees
  • henbit
  • hyacinth
  • mahonia
  • maple trees
  • purple dead nettle
  • Virginia bluebells
  • pussy willow
  • wild violets

Dandelion Pollen is Lacking

When know for sure that our bee do visit the flowers. In fact, seeing honey bees collecting dandelion pollen is a common sight.  They pack the bright orange pollen grains on their hind legs.  When those pollen baskets are full, back to the hive they go with their bounty.

This is a great benefit to a protein hungry colony that is tasked with raising thousands of new workers.  However, dandelions do not give the bees everything they need.  A colony could not exist on this one food source alone.

Dandelion pollen is lacking in some of the essential amino acids that honey bees need. Notably these are isoleucine, valine, leucine and arginine.

Does this mean it is bad for our bees?  Of course not, it simply means that the colony needs a variety of food sources – rather than relying on only these little flowers.

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Dandelion pollen and other types stored by bees in honeycomb image.

How Dandelions Benefit Bees

Ok, dandelions are not the ideal food for our winged friends.  They may not be considered a super food that is going to solve all of the nutritional needs of a colony.

However, this does not mean that they are not beneficial to insects.  In my region, we often have very cool days and wind when many of the early flowering trees are blooming. 

Our area is known for a big early maple bloom. Red Maple trees are a good food source for honey bees.  But some days are just too windy for good foraging. All of the nectar and pollen in the world is useless if the foragers can not make it to the bloom.

On those days, workers can forage on low growing weeds.  Dandelions and bees are perfect partners on these windy days.  These plants grow low on the ground and the flowers are easy to access.

They can also provide colonies with a food source that fills gap times.  Perhaps one pollen source has stopped blooming and the next good source has not started yet.  Dandelion flowers give the workers something meaningful to do.

Not every plant produces pollen and nectar at the same time of day.  Dandelions provide more food during the late morning.  Foragers may move on to another type of plant in the afternoon.  I have seen the same behavior when I plant a patch of buckwheat for my colonies.

And while dandelions may not be the perfect bee food, a field of these little yellow flowers is better for bees than a field of non-blooming grass.

What Pollinates Dandelion Flowers?

These plants are apomictic.  They reproduce asexually and do not need any type of pollinator.  No wonder they produce so rapidly in your lawn – even though you may not want them there.

White seed head of dandelion plant image.

Dandelions and Bees: Good or Bad?

It is clear that, at least at times, dandelions are beneficial to honey bees, native bees and other pollinators.  Otherwise, we would not see them foraging on the flowers.

We know that honey bees practice flower fidelity. This means that once they find a good food source, they tend to stick with it.  There has been some concern that foragers might get too focused on dandelions.  Then fail to switch to a richer food source when available.  Perhaps.

I would not advise purposely planting a field of dandelions for your hives.  There are many other plants that would provide more nutrition. 

However, that does not mean that some hungry bees won’t be thrilled to find some of those tiny yellow flowers in your yard.  Leave them a few weeks. Don’t be in a big hurry to mow them down. Let the bees have their fill.

Then as more flowers become available, you can pick a few flowers and make your own dandelion salve.  Sharing is caring.

If you absolutely must remove the plants from your yard, please choose the method carefully. Avoid any spray program that will endanger foraging polliinators.

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